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The debate about a woman’s ‘choice’ of whether to stay at home or go out to work has intensified lately. Cherie Blair caused a bit of a furor when she  urged young women to be self sufficient and cease relying on men for support. Breda O’Brien in The Irish Times caused controversy by her claims that work in the home is undervalued (August 11th 2012). Ann-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic (July/Aug 2012) claimed that women cannot ‘have it all’. All spoke about the concept of ‘choice’.  It is maintained that a mother can choose either to stay at home and be a full time homemaker/mother or go out to paid work outside the home.  Now, this is the bit that mystifies me. As far as I’m concerned there is no choice. I have instilled this into my own daughters. A woman must have her own income for the sake of her independence and her dignity. Jobs are scarce enough in these recessionary times. To give up a job and choose to stay at home in a state of economic dependancy is a risky business. It is akin to driving a car without insurance. Who knows what troubles lie ahead? Divorce? Illness? Redundancy? Addiction?  Desertion? Widowhood?

The suburban woman who stays at home to do housework and look after children is a fairly recent phenomenon historically speaking. Betty Freidan saw the suburban housewife of the fifties as an aberration in The Feminine Mystique. She described her boredom as ‘the problem that has no name’. Poor women always had to go out to work, as cleaners or in  factories. In earlier times they worked at home in paid occupations such as weaving. My female forebears without exception were farmers’ wives. My mother always hesitated before filling in ‘housewife’ on a form. It would have sounded ridiculous. I always encouraged her to put ‘farmer’, which indeed she was, doing the lion’s share of the work. Countrywomen of her generation ran dairies, milked cows, kept poultry, reared calves and pigs. Some had very large families also. Ploughing, sowing and reaping was done by the menfolk. I remember my mother speaking of ‘idle women in towns’. She said this in a tone which was half envious because of the perception that they had time at their disposal and yet grateful that she was not of their number. They did not have the clout that comes with making a direct contribution to the family income. An idle woman in a town was dependent on the husband who ‘went out’ to work. This also rendered her vulnerable no matter what her husband’s income.Townswomen who ran family businesses were in a different position. The farmer’s wife or shopkeeper’s wife who contributed to family income had the dignity and relative security that came from this activity.  He who pays the piper calls the tune. Better not to have just one person calling the tune.

My mother once told me a grim tale which has stayed in my mind. It concerned a girl of her acquaintance in the 1930s or 40s who married and became a full-time housewife in the city. However, the husband was what they called in those days ‘a jumped up clerk’ who had a bad temper. She was reduced to sprinkling holy water on his dinner before he came home in the evening so it would be to his liking and there would be no nasty repercussions. Imagine this scenario in a world without divorce, without economic opportunities for married women, a world where there was no escape. I often think of her misery.

A friend of a friend got married sometime around 1960. She came from an affluent south Dublin family. On the day of her wedding her mother gave her a cheque for a thousand pounds as pin money. This was a huge sum then. The mother was aware that it could be demeaning to have to ask a husband for money for a birthday or christening present for a niece or nephew or to have to justify every small expense. She was doing her bit to reduce her daughter’s dependancy. Not everyone was so lucky.

In the course of this debate we are often told that a woman either goes out to work in paid employment or does unpaid work in the home. It is suggested that in this either/or situation there is an equality of activity. Sorry folks. There just isn’t. Selling one’s time and energy to an employer is much tougher than ‘working in the home’. Most people do not have large families nowadays. Babyhood is exhausting but it passes quickly. Children spend much of their time in school. Domestic toil is not what it was. We have automatic washing machines and microwaves. The automatic washing machine is, after the contraceptive pill, the greatest invention of the twentieth century. The woman at home can choose what she does and when she does it. If she wishes she can do nothing at all. She can sit on the couch, eat chocolate biscuits and watch daytime telly if she is so inclined. Some do. Alternately she can spend the day cleaning, polishing, cooking and gardening if she wishes. Was it Betty Friedan again who told us that the housework expands to fill the time available? This is where the choice lies. To equate this with the duties of the A & E nurse, the garda, chef, accountant, or office worker who sell their time to an employer just does not make sense. The woman who works outside the home must turn up for duty, must fulfil certain obligations and has few choices. Some jobs are simply not that pleasant in spite of all the guff we hear about enjoying one’s job. She must also deal with the hell of childcare and what is called ‘juggling’ two roles.

I used to be a secondary teacher. This meant I had a big break of three months in the Summer, a situation much resented by non-teachers. I must admit it was wonderful, particularly when children were small. I remember thinking  ‘Is this what they mean by ‘working in the home’?  I got to experience the life of the mother at home and quite frankly there was simply no comparison. We had fun. We went on outings. We played with the dog. We read stuff. Yes, there was cooking and housework but nothing compared with having to turn up to two hundred of other peoples’ teenagers every day. And there were no cows to milk or pigs to feed or dinners to be taken to meadow and bog as in my mother’s day. Yet, never for a minute did I envy the ‘mums’ I saw on my way to school jogging and going for coffee together. I just saw them as people who were at risk. Through comparison comes clarity.

Most working women have it much harder than I have had and I feel their pain. But there is no choice. It is not easy. Nobody said it would be. I  remember reading Friedan’s The Second Stage years ago before I was ever a parent. She spoke of the urgent need for workplaces to become more family friendly. It seems we are further than ever from getting this message across to employers. The lives of young working mothers are more fraught than ever. We should give up this argument about whether to stay at home or not. Women must not make themselves vulnerable to unforeseen circumstances and economic downturn. They must concentrate instead in fighting for better childcare, parental leave and family friendly working conditions. ¡Arriba!